Flea and tea

My first unfiltered experience of China came one morning, ten years ago, when I walked through a flea market to reach a tea market. The flea market was the usual hotch potch of things, perfect for a quick look inside Chinese homes. Jade bracelets were laid out with bottles, jars, vases, and a very personable pig carved out of wood. If I had the weight allowance, I might have bought the pig right there.

In another aisle a middle-aged man sat with his collection of Mao memorabilia. The modern era of instant translation had not yet struck, and I hadn’t picked up even the smattering of Mandarin that I did later, so our communication was the age-old language of gestures and acting. You lose nuances in this language, but one meaning that came through was that some of the things he was selling was his own. There were a few medals with Mao’s face on it. A forty-odd years old man would have been in his early teens when Mao died, so I didn’t see how he could have won the medal. Maybe it was a family heirloom. Clearly there was a market for it even in the new China.

But most of the things put out for sale seemed to be more traditional. The small towns of India are full of little museums in forgotten mansions built by 19th century traders who found their riches in the trade with Shanghai and Guangzhou. Their display cases contained richer and more decorative versions of the things I saw. These “singing bowls” were quite a draw. Filled with water, you could set them vibrating with a clean high pitch when you drew your palms rapidly across their lip. I was shown how to do it.

I’d spent half an hour wandering around the market, and on the way out I stopped to take a photo of this celadon plate with a dragon winding around it. Later I would have the references to compare them with. Now I look at it and think it wasn’t a bad piece at all.

On to the tea market. I have no memory of what I’d imagined it to be, but it certainly wasn’t the sprawling maze of an indoor market that it actually was. There were more salespeople than customers at that time on a weekday morning. I suspect that in a market as big as that, it might be true at all times of every day. I peeked in through the open doors of every shop. Rows of crates, full of loose leaf tea, and shelves filled with packed teas and tea paraphernalia. That was the layout of each shop. And people sitting and picking through trays of tea leaves.

My favourite photo from that day is of this long narrow stall. Near the open door was a white cockatoo. The man sitting there paid us no attention as we walked by. Later, gawking done, I came back to this shop to buy tea. It was deserted, but as soon as I walked in through the door, the cockatoo squawked, and an young man poked his head out of the inner door. He had no English, but called someone on a phone. A trapdoor in the ceiling opened, and an English-speaking helper dropped into the shop. That was an eventful way to buy enough tea to last me a year.

Tea

Chinese tea is so different from Indian tea that I don’t even know how to begin to list the differences. So, one of the exciting things you can do in China is to taste the teas. It turns out that the best place to do this in Beijing is to go to the Maliandao tea street. This whole street is lined with shops selling tea and tea paraphernalia.

My target was the Beijing International Tea Center, whose entrance is shown in the photo above. This was the only door flanked by elephants that I saw in China. In this one large building you can go from one shop to another tasting their tea. I did not meet a single person who knows English, but this should not stop you. The people here are not only good salesmen, but also seem to like tea. It is an interesting experience to sit down for a tea tasting and converse about tea without understanding the words which are spoken.

I met one young lady who surmounted the language barrier by typing her responses into her mobile, listening to the English translation through her ear buds, and then repeating it. Sometimes I would have to look at her mobile to see the English and say the words out correctly, so I guess I repaid her for the tasting by teaching her a little English.

But there were people who did not try to achieve this mechanical level of communication. The best experiences were with people who would spontaneously bring out a new tea in order to explain subtle differences in flavours and methods of infusion. I would explain the price range I was interested in, but that did not stop anyone from bringing out much more expensive tea for the tasting. I guess the cost of tastings is factored into the prices.

You can walk out of any tasting without buying tea by saying a few words. But I found that when I wanted something I could discuss the price. Getting the price down by a third was not a problem: in my experience there would be an automatic agreement. Starting at half the price would usually lead to a more prolonged discussion, with the final price settling at between 60 and 65 percent of the initial bid.

This was probably the most instructive evening I have spent. I wish there were similar wine markets in southern Europe.